With Little Opposition, Minimum Wage Campaign Seeks Mandate

This past legislative session, a bill that would have raised the minimum wage was among the most divisive items under consideration. Now, a citizen’s initiative to do the exact same thing is about the least controversial question on this year’s ballot.

There’s no spirited dissent to the proposition, and polls show the measure passing by a margin of two to one. So why is that? APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez looks at how the minimum wage campaign found itself running without organized opposition.

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Rep. Andy Josephson vividly remembers testimony on the minimum wage bill. As a member of the House Labor and Commerce committee, he sat through the failed legislation’s only hearing.

“There was a packed room. There was a lot of media. There were no people testifying, with one exception that I recall, against the bill.”

The one person who testified against raising the minimum wage was a bar owner from Nikiski, who argued it would burden her business.

“There was no organized opposition from the business community, from the Chamber [of Commerce], from the seafood industry, or really anywhere else,” says Josephson.

In what might seem like a funny twist, Josephson ended up voting against the bill when it made a rushed appearance on the House floor, even though he’s now advocating for the wage increase. Actually, the whole story of the minimum wage bill is one of strange bedfellows and accusations of political gamesmanship.

The legislation was introduced by House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Republican from Nikiski. An initiative to raise the minimum wage to $9.75 over two years and then peg it to inflation had already been certified to appear on the ballot, and the language of the bill was identical.

Initiative sponsors had two theories about this. The first worry was that legislators wanted to pass a minimum wage bill so they could go back and weaken it. If law is made by ballot initiative, legislators can’t touch it for two years, but they can fiddle with it if they pass it themselves.

Josephson points out that’s exactly what happened a decade ago.

“I believe that the intent was what it was in 2003, and that was to pass a bill and then at some later time – as soon as January 2015 — to entertain a bill that would undo, essentially, and amend the existing bill,” says Josephson.

The second theory was that Republicans didn’t want the minimum wage question on the ballot because of the potential to draw out liberal-leaning voters. In a recent interview with member station KTNA, Rep. Wes Keller of Wasilla said that he voted the minimum wage bill as a Republican in part because he was making a “political” calculation based on the “huge ramifications” on who show up in November.”

Speaker Mike Chenault didn’t respond to interview requests about the bill’s origins or whether he supports the proposed initiative. But at the time, Chenault charged it was the Democrats and organized labor playing games in trying to draw out a more sympathetic electorate.

Regardless of the motives, the April fight over the bill has left the usual opponents of a minimum wage increase in a bit of a bind when it comes to the initiative.

Denny Dewitt directs the National Federation of Independent Business’s Alaska chapter. They oppose a further increase to the minimum wage on the grounds that it could reduce employment opportunities, particularly for teenagers. Even though NFIB has been consistent on that position, DeWitt remembers the political overtones of the debate, and he says responding to it was a bit of a conundrum for his lobbying group.

“The question on what we did on that bill really effectively came down to: Do you want it on the ballot or not?” says DeWitt.

In the end, NFIB did not take a position on the minimum wage bill, even though they’re speaking against the initiative now. Same goes for the state Chambers of Commerce, and the industrial seafood processors.
At most, the groups are raising their concerns at public forums. DeWitt says he’s served as the voice of the opposition at state-sponsored hearings because the Lieutenant Governor, Mead Treadwell, asked him to for the sake of balance. The Alaska NFIB chapter has no plans to put money into fighting the measure

“We don’t have the resources to do that,” says DeWitt. “We’re not a huge, well-heeled lobbying activity like some are, so we do what we can.”

The National Federation of Independent Business website boasts that it’s ranked as the top business lobby in the country by Fortune Magazine, and the group has received backing from billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The interplay between the bill and the initiative also has the Alaska Republican Party and some of its candidates straddling positions.

Back during the legislative session, the party put an action alert on their Facebook groups, encouraging confused members to call their senators and ask them to pass the minimum wage bill. (One user commented, “Why do we want to pay them more? Could someone explain that to me?”) Now, Party Chair Peter Goldberg says there’s no official position on the minimum wage initiative.

Dan Sullivan, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, also recently announced he was going to support the minimum wage initiative, after having come out against an increase in the primary. In an e-mailed statement, he stressed it was a personal stance, and that he still opposes any increase at the federal level.
So, initiative sponsors are looking at silence, lukewarm protests, or half-endorsements from groups who might normally fight against them.

This was clear at a recent Anchorage hearing, where multiple pastors spoke in favor of the initiative and supporters waved signs outside the meeting at the Dena’ina Center.

On the anti-side, Denny DeWitt testified over the phone from the airport, a seafood lobbyist came out against it, and a representative from the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce offered his disapproval while noting that he didn’t want to look like a villain. And that was it.

Ari Gardner is the campaign director for Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage. He says there have been times when he’s been invited to forums to speak on the initiative that he’s had to help the organizers find someone, anyone to do the counterpoint.

“It’s a good problem to have that we don’t have a solidified opposition,” says Gardner. “But I think we still have a lot of work to do.”

Gardner says this point, the goal isn’t just to win – it’s to secure a mandate. Even though the few polls that have been done on the measure show it clearing 60 percent of the vote, Gardner wants to guarantee as wide a margin as possible to discourage lawmakers from tampering with the minimum wage or the inflation indexing component in the future.

“It’s important that people don’t take for granted that this is going to pass,” says Gardner.

So, he says they’re still planning on running hard, even if there’s no one really running against them.

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agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra